Welcome to the world of pickling and fermentation. To start there are several different methods for making pickles, one that involves heat and one that involves soaking the cucumbers in a brine (salt) solution. And of course there are sweet pickles vs. dill pickles but we are all about dill pickles here.
Crispy, Crunchy Homemade Half Sour Pickles
The heat method makes jarred pickles that are "shelf stable" which means you don't have to refrigerate them until they are opened, like those you find on the grocery store shelves. The brining method is basically soaking the pickles in the brine until they ferment to the right level and are "sour" enough for you. Like the pickles you would see in the old general store sitting in a big jar on the shelf.
The salt acts as a preservative discouraging the growth of bad bacteria and encouraging the growth of the good stuff. That is why fermented foods are so good for you . The longer you leave them without refrigeration sitting in the brine the more sour they become. So they are referred to as half sour and full sour pickles.
Full sour pickles will make your mouth pucker and your eyes close if you take a bite. They are what are commonly used on an Italian Sub in the northeast to give it that distinctive flavor (so always get pickles on your Italian Sub!). From the time the brine is added to the jar with the cukes the fermentation process begins. And it continues unabated until you put the jar in the refrigerator. At that point it will continue but at a much slower pace because of the temperature. Think of it like leaving milk on the counter or in the refrigerator, it will eventually go bad in the fridge but at a much slower rate than if you left it out on the shelf.
The longer they sit out the softer they will get and the more fermented, or sour, they become. This recipe could actually be called refrigerator pickles. I wanted a pickle like they use at Sam Lagrassa's sandwich shop in Boston. I asked him once if he made them and he told me they come in from New York. No surprise there. The other place where lightly fermented or half sour pickles are very famous is at Rein's Deli in Vernon, CT right off Exit 65 on I-84. Both are great but I like these better!
I let these sit out for about 8 hours which seems to be the perfect time. You can certainly experiment with this and I encourage you to do so. Just remember if you let them sit out leave the top loose because there is gas building up in this process and you don't want any "pickle explosions."
And I use only fresh dill and fresh garlic. Many people add coriander seeds, mustard seed, black pepper corns, red pepper flakes, etc., etc. That is up to you. I like them simple and fresh tasting most of the time.
All the Ingredients for Making Pickles
So enough of all that, let's get to making some pickles. And this is really simple so don't be intimidated by the number of instructions, I just wanted to make sure everything was discussed. Have fun and check back with us to let us know how you make out.
1. Add 2 cups of water to a 4 cup microwave save measuring cup and microwave on high for 3 minutes. The salt will dissolve better in warm water but it is not necessarily required.
2. Add the salt and stir until the water is completely clear. If it remains somewhat cloudy that is ok, you probably have anti-caking agent in the salt or other impurities.
3. When the salt is fully dissolved, add ice cubes to bring the water level up to just shy of 4 cups. You can also add cold water if you need your ice for cold drinks.
Brine with the Ice Added
4. While you're waiting for the water to cool down, wash the pickling cukes and trim the ends of any that have stems protruding. These can inhibit the development of the pickles.
Pickling Cuke with a Stem End
5. Lightly smash and peel 1 medium large garlic clove. You don't want to smash it fully like you would if you were going to chop it and add it to sauce or something. It should remain mostly whole but just cracked down the middle. Pull it apart into two pieces. Yes, if it falls into 3 pieces that is fine.
A Lightly Crushed Clove of Garlic (Just Cut it in Half or Pull it Apart)
6. Trim the fennel but leave it whole, do not chop it up.
A Fresh Fennel Plant from a Local Farm
Fennel Trimmed and Ready to Use
7. Add the Pickle Crisp to your mason jar or other canning jar. I like this because it is convenient. You can also use fresh grape leaves or even oak leaves for this but be careful that the trees or plants have not been sprayed.
Pickle Crisp Made by Ball
8. Add the cukes, garlic and fennel to your jar. You can pack them in pretty tight but leave a little room for the brine to circulate.
A Jar of "Spears" Ready for Brine
You need a strategy to hold the pickles under the liquid. I use the Visco Disc Jar Topper
inserts pictured below that do the job really well. And they make an "inerter" which pushes the topper down into the jar but I just do that by hand. But if you are using whole pickling cukes you can usually pack them in so that just the volume of them holds them below the top of the jar where it starts to get narrower. Not all that important when doing refrigerator pickles but if you are fermenting you have to have a means to keep the cukes submerged in the brine.
Visco Disc Jar Topper
Jar Topper in Top of Jar
Topper Inserted Down into the Jar
10. When the ice has melted top off the measuring cup to 4 cups.
11. Add the liquid to the jar so it is within about 1/2' to 1" from the top of the jar.
Brine Added to the Jar
12. Cover the jar loosely and let it sit out on the counter for 8 hours or so. Yes, overnight is fine. See the discussion in the introduction about levels of fermentation.
Ready to Sit for a While and Become the Best Pickles Ever!
13. After letting it sit out on the counter, tighten the lid and turn the jar several times to mix everything up. Loosen the lid slightly and place the jar in the refrigerator.
Pickles Living Happily in the Fridge
14. Every day or two tighten the lid and mix it up again. I like to loosen it during this process although there is not much fermentation taking place because it is in the refrigerator so there is not much of a gas build up.